It’s not only dogs who profit from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed program. Her empathetic approach to stressed-out and anxious canine psyches has helped me come up with a strategy for my own life.
I get anxious. Not in a big or dramatic kind of way. In a small way that people usually don’t know about because I’m good at hiding it. But there are times when the seeming overwhelmingness of a single work day makes me feel tense, stressed-out, scared or angry. There are days when I get up and see so much complexity in front of me that I’m tempted to either give up and go back to bed, or stress out and get nervous-frantic-high-blood-pressure-y.
Leslie McDevitt suggests that a space or an event be broken down into several steps for reactive or nervous dogs: get out of the car. Next target: the door of the training facility. Walk to the door. This is the dog’s target; he doesn’t have to think about anything else. Next target: the dog’s crate. The dog knows his crate; he can do that. All that matters is getting from the door to the crate. Next target: get out of the crate and to the dog’s mat, which is close by. Nothing else matters in this space. Mats are familiar targets. The dog knows how to work them. He can do that, and the handler has set him up for success!
I get anxious about things that might be a human equivalent of the car-to-mat odyssee for a stressed-out, reactive border collie: I have a hard time dealing with stuff that some people might not consider a big deal. Not all the time, but every once in a while, I have a month of anxiety. Energy-consuming, tiring, scary anxiety. In times like this, I’m anxious about getting up early and doing all these millions of things that have to be done before I have to work, get anxious about the people at work and navigating them with my dog and getting back in time for my friend’s dog’s walk and work again and then there is my flatmate to deal with and getting to bed in time and, and, and …!
Now, when it’s one of those times that I feel the anxiety creeping up on me, I tell myself to take a breath. And then I only focus on one step at a time: first goal: coffee. get up, prepare breakfast for myself and the dog. That’s easy enough; I can do that! I do it every morning. Routines can be helpful. A cup of coffee is all I need to think about, all that matters. Target met: ✓ Take a breath. Next target: drive to the park. I can do that. I can drive; it’s all that matters. I don’t need to think about the time, don’t need to listen to the radio. Just drive. I can meet that target! ✓ Take a breath. Next target: walk Phoebe. I love taking walks with my puppy. It’s relaxing, for the most part, and it fills me with energy to meet my fellow dog-walkers and share some morning smalltalk with Lola’s owner while our dogs play. I can meet that target! ✓ Take a breath. Next target: drive to the subway station. Just drive. Don’t worry about time, the radio, or work. All that matters in my space at that point is driving. I can meet that target! ✓ Take a breath. Next target: walk across a busy square with Phoebe next to me, down through the maze that is this subway station, to get to my next target: the Kagran platform. I know the way. I can do that! ✓ Take a breath. My next target is Karlsplatz. I take the subway. I’ve taken the subway before; it’s okay. I can do that! ✓ Take a breath. My next target is my classroom. Another maze of a subway station, a busy square, an elevator, a corridor. I’ve gotten up early enough so there won’t be too many people when I take this elevator and navigate the building. I’m in my classroom in time for my next target. ✓ Take a breath. Set up camp for Phoebe and me: her mat, her water, her chew-shoe. My chair, my water, my books and teacher’s utensils. ✓ Take another breath. Now, all I have to do is teach for a little while, until it’s break time. The break is my next target. Time flies since I like teaching – when I manage to get in a state where I can focus on it, on the moment rather than all the rest of the stuff that awaits me afterwards. ✓
Later, I’ve got to pick up a friend’s dog. There’s another long dog walk with two dogs – the second part of the day that really lets me relax and unwind, be in the moment. ✓ And then … more stuff. Always more stuff. But breaking it into small steps makes it doable for me. It sets me up for success. ✓
I grew up in a family who wasn’t aware of stress in children or dogs: as a child, I was expected to meet expectations I couldn’t meet and follow rules I didn’t understand, and I was repremanded for not meeting expectations and disobeying rules. The dogs in my family were raised in similar ways: with a ‘strong hand’, and with choke chains and shock collars “when necessary”.
I used to think it wasn’t okay to be scared of the everyday. I used to think the everyday was supposed to be easy, and I was supposed to thrive on it – and I used to beat up myself when I didn’t. I used to challenge myself, i.e. to flood myself with experiences: lone backpacking through Latin America, the Palestine Territories during the war, studying at an elite college in the US, human rights work in Mexico. I felt that if I had these experiences to show, I could respect myself – and so would everyone else.
Well, I still don’t thrive on the everyday, and I’m still frequently scared of it. I still don’t like long plane-rides, and I still get anxiety attacks at crowded concerts. However, something has changed in the last years: I’ve given myself permission to avoid scary situations. If I’m walking into a scary situation these days (and that can be a scary Monday, for example), I do so because I choose to. Nobody forces me to. Sometimes I can’t bear life. And I give myself permission to take the day off. Because it’s okay: the everyday is scary. It’s extremely complex, and our days are filled with demanding tasks. Everyone who gets up in the morning, has breakfast, walks their dog and goes to work is performing a string of complex social and environmental interactions that deserve everyone else’s respect! The ones who struggle with life, but still get up, walk their dogs and go to work deserve our respect even more.
What Leslie McDevitt’s book shows about performance dogs holds true for people as well: take a breath. Incorporate targeting into your everyday. Set yourself up for success!